The Turnbull government is set to crack down on schools and universities that send their students to volunteer in overseas orphanages, amid fears that they may be contributing to a new form of modern slavery.
Education Minister Simon Birmingham says he is appalled that well-meaning students could be unwittingly caught up in child exploitation through orphanage tourism and shonky volunteer programs.
Global demand for so-called “voluntourism” experiences is fuelling the targeted recruitment of children who are unnecessarily separated from their families to solicit profit from Western visitors.
Experts warn that it is not uncommon for recruiters to be sent into villages to convince families to give up their children for money or the promise of a better life.
Once the children are taken, parents are often encouraged not to visit their child or are told they no longer have custody rights; papers are often falsified as children are trafficked between facilities; and children are effectively exploited for profit through forced “cultural” performances for tourists, forced begging, or forced interaction with visitors.
“It disgusts me that well-meaning students seeking to help vulnerable children overseas might be unwittingly signed up for scam volunteer programs and orphanage tourism that risks further child exploitation,” Mr Birmingham told Fairfax Media.
“The national government has a leadership role to play in setting education policy but I hope that we will enjoy co-operation from states and territories, non-government school authorities and universities to ensure that due diligence occurs before groups take-off.”
Figures from child protection agency Lumos suggest that there are more than 8 million children living in residential orphanages around the world, while UNICEF estimates that four in five of them have at least one living parent.
But with many n schools and universities continuing to visit, volunteer or fundraise for such facilities – often in partnership with third-party operators – the government concedes that part of the solution involves raising awareness about the risks involved.
In a bid to tackle the issue, Mr Birmingham has asked his education department to work with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on a suite of policies to put on the agenda at the next COAG Education Council with his state and territory counterparts.
The government is also considering introducing a Modern Slavery Act, modelled on a similar law in the UK, which would force large businesses to report on the measures they are taking to stamp out slavery in their supply chains.
While modern slavery generally refers to exploitative practices such as sex trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, or wage exploitation, some within Coalition ranks, such as West n senator Linda Reynolds, are pushing for orphanage tourism to be an internationally recognised form of slavery.
A 2016 mapping study by Rethink Orphanages found that almost 58 per cent of n universities advertised orphanage placements through international volunteering opportunities. Meanwhile, in Victoria alone, almost 16 per cent of public high schools and 13 per cent of private high schools fundraise or take school trips to orphanages.
However, education chiefs have defended their involvement, insisting their students are not getting caught up in child exploitation.
Overnewton Anglican Community College principal James Laussen??? said his school had sent students and staff to Zambia for years to support an orphanage in Chibobo. He said this had not only given participants the chance to understand the challenges the local community faced, but also led to funding of a medical clinic, construction of a new school, and other supportive partnerships.
Deakin University pro vice-chancellor John Molony said: “We recognise some countries offer programs that do not have strong protection measures in place for children, so we deliberately work only with organisations that have undergone Deakin’s rigorous due diligence processes to ensure we do not engage with organisations that could put children at risk.”
But Rethink Orphanages spokeswoman Leigh Mathews said there was no such thing as a “good orphanage” because the model of institutional care in itself was inherently harmful to children “no matter how high quality the care provided is”.